Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

As Hooker Leaves, UM's Vision Goes With Him


This is Michael K. Hooker's last day as president of theUniversity of Maryland at Baltimore County. Tomorrow he leaves for Boston to assume his new duties as the head of the entire University of Massachusetts system.

It's an open secret that the leaders of Maryland's higher education establishment are relieved to see him go. Since he started to look for a new job last fall, they have done nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to try to persuade him to stay. His decision to leave and their complacency at his departure tell us a lot about the problems and prospects of higher education in this state.

When Dr. Hooker arrived in 1986, UMBC was a little known school with a funny name and a modest sense of its mission. It enjoyed an unassuming, unexciting, and unthreatening niche in the careful pecking order of higher education in this state. Central Maryland did not think of it as an important component in the region's economic future, and Baltimore business leaders rarely thought of it at all.

Dr. Hooker changed UMBC's public image and changed it fast. He tirelessly preached, to anyone who would listen, that the nature and function of the American university had to change. Knowledge had replaced energy as the fuel of economic growth. A good research university had become any region's most important economic asset. Academic ivory towers had to begin to think of themselves as economic engines.

Furthermore, Dr. Hooker argued, Baltimore could not flourish in the global economy unless it transformed itself into a center of economically-relevant knowledge. To drive that process, this metropolitan area needed a first-class public research university. UMBC, he proclaimed, could play that role.

What followed was a lesson in the power of vision. He announced plans to build on the school's previously unappreciated strengths in fields like biochemistry. UMBC suddenly became the most exciting educational player in town. Dr. Hooker's concept of the school's role was applauded by SRI International. His specific agenda for a new UMBC was supported by the Greater Baltimore Committee and neatly matched the GBC's own vision of a new city transformed into a life sciences center.

Dr. Hooker's aspirations for UMBC couldn't have looked more promising when the state government completely reorganized the system of higher education in 1988 and began to pour hefty budget surpluses into its universities over the next two years.

Since then, the repeated budget cuts have undermined the high hopes Maryland once entertained for excellence in higher education. But an equal share of the blame belongs elsewhere.

The 1988 reorganization was intended to impose accountability on the state's universities and colleges. Instead, it has inflicted conflict, confusion and stalemate. Nothing demarcates the respective powers and responsibilities of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland system. They step on each other and frustrate everybody else.

To make matters worse, the regents have not been effective. The governor originally selected a weak group in 1988 and has since added political cronies with no conspicuous qualifications

for higher education governance. The chairman apparently sees it as his role to preside rather than lead, and his fellow regents have followed his passive example.

Regents are neither seen nor heard in Annapolis. They don't fight for their institutions, not even when their vital interests are at stake. For example, they haven't done anything to try to protect the system from disproportionate budget cuts. They have developed no vision or agenda.

Instead they merely react to the reports which bureaucrats feed to them. The chancellor himself avoids the rough and tumble of the General Assembly, doesn't seem to get along very well with the governor, plays his cards close to his vest and doesn't make clear his strategies or priorities.

In retrospect, Morgan State University and St. Mary's College were smart to stay outside the new system. These schools have preserved their independence. They each have their own boards which have acted as their ardent champions. The presidents have the freedom to go out and fight for their institutional goals on their own.

In contrast, the eleven presidents in the University of Maryland system must bring their plans and ideas to the Board of Regents where they are homogenized to placate everybody else's. The regents never act as advocates for individual institutions.

This is not a system that encourages or rewards bold initiatives. It doesn't even set priorities. For example, the regents have spread each of the eight budget cuts evenly across all 11 campuses.

UMBC isn't the only institution that has suffered. But Dr. Hooker's ideas have been its principal victims. They have received much sagacious head wagging but little effective support and no impassioned advocacy.

Take the UMAB-UMBC merger, an idea that originated with others but which he promoted even though its implementation would have eliminated his own position. The regents passively approved the proposal. But they never rolled up their sleeves and went to work to try to sell it in College Park or Annapolis.

They stood by while other jealous Baltimore area universities pecked at it behind closed doors. They never even tried to mount an effective campaign to stop a parochial president of the state Senate from torpedoing it. Since then, they have done nothing to revive it.

Michael Hooker has run his course here. His aspirations for UMBC threatened too many settled institutional relationships, and his obvious ambitions for himself disturbed too many less obvious egos. But he leaves behind the gift of a shining vision which others can still try to implement.

While higher education in Maryland remains bogged down in a system that doesn't work, we can watch from a distance what Dr. Hooker now does in Massachusetts. There he was personally recruited by the new governor.

Four years from now, that savvy politician will run for president and take credit for the bold initiatives which the head of his university system will have put in place.

Tim Baker's column appears here on alternate Mondays.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad